A million-dollar lawsuit by an actress who claims her job prospects were damaged when she was outed online as a 40-year-old has run smack into conventional wisdom: If Sandra Bullock, 47, and Helen Mirren, 66, are getting steady work, bias against older actresses surely must have vanished.
Film stars Meryl Streep, Halle Berry and Glenn Close are also members of the 40-plus and employed club. On TV, the majority of the "Desperate Housewives" female leads are nearing 50, while Emmy Award-winning Julianna Margulies of "The Good Wife" is 44.
But industry insiders and unions say star power obscures the ageism gap between high-profile performers and working stiffs — a unique aspect of Hollywood's division of the haves and have-nots.
"There is a tendency for all of us to think of the actors we see all the time and whose names we know," said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the Screen Actors Guild's deputy national executive director and general counsel.
"But the vast majority of characters on TV and film are portrayed by people we don't know and who are struggling to make a living as an actor," he said.
Want examples? Think of searching a movie's closing credits to identify an actor in a minor role, or the somewhat familiar face that pops up as the guest victim or killer on a TV crime drama.
Older actresses face more hiring hurdles than their male counterparts, according to employment statistics from SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, as well as the experience of those on the front lines.
Women over 40 make up 24.3 percent of the U.S. population, the 2010 census found. In comparison, union casting analysis show actresses over 40 years old get 12.5 percent of roles for television and film. Men of that age are also about a quarter of the population but nearly equal their ranks in casting.
(Television doesn't do well by women overall, who are 50.8 percent of the U.S. population but are seen in only a quarter of roles, according to union statistics.)
The picture is no prettier when it comes to earnings in the youth-obsessed industry. In 2010, for example, actresses ages 41 to 50 working in SAG-covered film and TV projects earned a total $58 million — compared to the $160 million paid to actors in that age group.
The guild is heartened by the high-profile older actresses who are finding work, especially on TV, and Crabtree-Ireland said, "We hope that this will be the beginning of a trend for all of our members, but our data doesn't show that."
Among the groundbreakers are Close, 64, of "Damages" and the upcoming theatrical release "Albert Nobbs"; Kyra Sedgwick, 46, of "The Closer"; and Marg Helgenberger, 52, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
That's progress, given that superstar Bette Davis was 42 when she played an aging actress on the brink of irrelevance in "All About Eve" (1950) and was 56 when she starred as an elderly "spinster" descending into madness in "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964).
Compare that to Dana Delaney and her role as a smart, sexy medical examiner in "Body of Proof." Delaney turns 56 next March.
"It's a miracle I'm still working," said Salma Hayek, 45, whose credits include the newly released "Puss in Boots" and "Frida" (2002), for which she received an Oscar nomination. "They told me you'll never work because I have the accent. ... They told me you're not going to work after 35 or 30, and I've never been busier in my life."
But non-marquee performers see a different script. The lawsuit filed in October by an actress identified only as "Jane Doe" contends that "lesser-known forty-year-old actresses are not in demand in the entertainment business."
How her age became public is at the heart of the suit. She says it was through the Internet Movie Database Pro website IMDbPro, the subscription-based counterpart to the popular and free IMDb, which are subsidiaries of Amazon.com. IMDbPro's home page boasts that "Industry Insiders Use Pro," which offers 80,000 representation listings for actors, directors, and producers. Those listings generally include, among credits and contacts, birth dates.
"It's become a really big tool in our business. But it's become a detriment to the working actor," said agent Marilyn Szatmary, a partner in SMS Talent in Los Angeles. There's a growing reliance on using an actor's chronological age to judge them for a role, instead of assessing the age they can "play" on screen, she said.
"You get on the phone with a casting director and you try to pitch someone for a role, say a 30-year-old character, and the actor legitimately can play 30," Szatmary said. "But the casting director goes on IMDBPro and says, 'No, this says they're 35.' And they won't call them."
What Crabtree-Ireland calls "the IMDb issue" has provoked a flood of complaints from guild members in the last five to six years. Young actors can be affected as well, he said, recalling a 22-year-old who, when her age was revealed online, abruptly stopped getting juvenile roles she'd routinely played.
Industry changes, including the rise of reality TV series and diminished film production, have reduced the available work for actors and made hiring more competitive. In this crowded field, even a guest role on a TV series such as "Grey's Anatomy" can draw 2,000 submissions, Szatmary said.
That's why those responsible for filling roles need to use all tools at their disposal, casting directors say. Actors may claim to be younger and may post misleading photos online, said casting veteran Sheila Manning. ("The photos they are using are, shall we say, Photoshopped," she said.)
If they look right for the part they'll be considered regardless of their age, Manning said.
"It's better now. There's more work for them (veteran performers), probably because the people hiring them are also getting older," Manning said. "I don't think we cast by age, I think we cast by looks. Look at Susan Sarandon, who's 65. She looks spectacular."
Isabella Hoffman, 52, whose credits include "Princess Diaries 2" and TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Criminal Minds," tries to avoid being typecast by age and, like many working actresses in Hollywood, looks younger than her years. But she sees the problem in a larger, more intractable context.
"Our belief system in America is 'youth rules.' That's what people want to see. We've based a lot of our decisions about what we sell, what we wear ... on a much more youthful group."
Asked if that makes it especially tough for performers, she replies. "I don't know. You could also look at the flip side." She paused, and then added with a rueful laugh, "I can't look at the flip side."
SAG and IMDb representatives have been meeting over a nearly two-year period to discuss dropping ages from the site, Crabtree-Ireland said, with the guild providing a proposal that he declined to detail. AFTRA and other guilds are involved in the effort that so far has been fruitless.
The "Jane Doe" lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where Amazon is based, alleges that IMDB used the actress' credit card and other personal information to determine and post her birth date in violation of privacy and consumer rights. The actress, whose suit doesn't describe her career and notes only that she's from Texas and of Asian ethnicity, said she was keeping her identity unknown to avoid "even further damage and economic injury."
(Her attorney, who didn't respond to requests for comment, claimed in a filing that his client has been subjected to ridicule and retaliation. Several actors approached to discuss the issue on the record declined, citing its sensitivity, and a declaration filed this week by Crabtree-Ireland argued that if Jane Doe's name becomes known she could face industry blacklisting as a complainer.)
Amazon has a "long-standing practice of not commenting on litigation matters," company spokeswoman Mary Osako said in an e-mail that included a November motion for dismissal of the suit. There has been no ruling yet on the motion, which is based in part on the actress' anonymity. The motion also alleges that she is attempting to deceive the public and potential employers by hiding her age and tried to make IMDb "perpetuate" a falsehood about it.
SAG intends to keep pressing the company on posting ages and has not ruled out any options, Crabtree-Ireland said, including "litigation or legislative efforts. However, we continue to hope that IMDb will acknowledge the harm and take voluntary action."
"They have a moral obligation to consider the impact," he said. "IMDb covers a whole lot of people who are not and never will be newsworthy, the journeymen who keep the industry running. There will never be a profile on them in a major newspaper or magazine. But data is being published in a way that really undermines their career."
Despite the specter of age bias, Salma Hayek insists that "you cannot lie about your age."
But, she added, "I do think people should stop being obsessed about the age of the actors because it takes away some of the magic. You should be able to transform into anything."
AP Entertainment Writer Ryan Pearson contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.